From Rust Belt to Legacy Cities

7.11.12 | The University of Chicago’s Urban Portal posted a thoughtful summary last week of a new book on the origins of population decline in the Rust Belt and how cities like Detroit and Cleveland can build on their own assets and revitalize their communities.

“Between 1950 and 2008, Detroit, once a city of almost 2 million, lost about half of its residents,” they write at Urban Portal. “What used to be a symbol of American prosperity has become the most prominent example of postindustrial urban decay.”

But there’s hope. So says a new book, “Rebuilding America’s Legacy Cities: New Directions for the Industrial Heartland.” The volume is the product of a 2011 conference held by the American Assembly, the Center for Community Progress  and the Center for Sustainable Urban Development at the Earth Institute at Columbia University. Scholars and leaders met with the aim of hammering out solutions to population decline in post-industrialized cities in America’s East and Midwest.

The resulting volume contains 13 chapters on the whys of depopulation and market collapse and on concrete steps to put these cities on a path to growth and positive change.

The volume’s editor, Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress and the Brookings Institution, presents the core concept in the book’s introduction – that despite decay and depression in places like Detroit and St. Louis, planners and community members should focus attention on the considerable assets these cities still hold, both as cultural icons – he coins them “Legacy Cities” — and as potential economic drivers. These cities hold valuable assets from  human capital, infrastructure investments in public facilities, to research centers like Johns Hopkins, Carnegie-Mellon, and the Cleveland Clinic that are “of critical importance” to cities as they find their path to growth.

Urban Portal has a useful summary of the chapter by BRR Network Members Ned Hill, Harold Wolman, and their colleagues Katherine Kowalczyk and Travis St. Clair.  Entitled “Forces Affecting City Population Growth or Decline: The Effects of Interregional and Inter-municipal Competition,” (pdf) the chapter analyzes four decades of population rise and decline in U.S. cities.

Based on census data and data on unemployment and Gross Metropolitan (Domestic) Product from Moody’s Analytics, Hill and his colleagues found that high unemployment rates are indeed strongly associated with population decline in cities. Furthermore, cities in states that had implemented right-to-work laws preventing labor unions from enforcing union membership as a precondition for employment fared better in terms of retaining their population than states which did not have similar legal provisions. Finally, older cities with lower-quality infrastructure, as well as cities with higher crime rates were more likely to lose population than newer cities with lower crime rates.

Urban Portal also gives a shout out to Terry Swartz’s chapter on “Rethinking Places in Between,” which I found particularly interesting. Swartz is a designer and director of Kent State University’s Cleveland Urban Design Collaborative. Check out their work at Pop Up City, an experiment that since 2007 has been bringing empty spaces to life “through magical, ephemeral experiences that demonstrate how vacancy can be an opportunity and an adventure, not just a liability.” In this chapter Swartz writes eloquently about using and reusing vacant property.

“Many older cities have built too much and sprawled too much,” she says, “and now they simply have too much—substantially more housing, retail square footage, and office space than are likely to be needed for the foreseeable future.”

But what to do with that “too-much” is a conundrum. She discusses the approaches of places like Youngstown, Buffalo, and Philadelphia that are attempting to reduce their surplus through greening strategies. These strategies, they hope, will help stabilize the real estate market and promote other public good in the process.

In Cleveland, where in 2010, for example, the city had approximately 20,000 vacant lots, according to Swartz, totaling about 3,500 acres , the city embarked on the Re-imagining a More Sustainable Cleveland initiative, which used three strategies for dealing with vacant land:

  • “Holding Strategies”: providing basic upkeep of vacant lots until the city needs them in the near future.
  • “Green Infrastructure” that connects parks, restores urban tree canopies, manages storm water, and restores damaged ecosystems.
  • “Productive Landscape,” which uses the empty land for economic return, from food production or alternative energy generation. The city has plans to grow local food through greenhouses for example, for urban agriculture, community gardens and kitchens, or bio-digester facilities that convert food waste into renewable fuel, creating jobs and revenue for the city.

“The most important aspect of vacant land management is the realization that cities constantly grow, shrink, and change,” Swartz writes. “In this context, vacant land is a valuable resource because it allows a city to adapt to changing circumstances in ways that support positive economic and ecological outcomes.”

This conclusion should  ring true for loyal readers of this blog. BRR research has consistently found that cities and regions that can be flexible and adapt to the changing economy and infrastructure needs will be better able to withstand future crises.

You can buy your copy of “Rebuilding America’s Legacy Cities: New Directions for the Industrial Heartland” on Amazon or download chapters online here.

Photo/ Barbara Ray.

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